Jun 1, 2018
June 3 always stands out in my mind as the day Pope Saint John XXIII died and the day my brother’s oldest son was born. It also happens to be the Church’s memorial day of Saint Charles Lwanga and companions.
Pope John’s death stands out in my mind more for the effect he had on my non-Catholic neighbors. I remember delivering the afternoon newspaper that bore the headline of his death, and one devout Protestant said as I handed him the paper, “He was a really good man.”
I hope my nephew born that day will become a saint. He, too, is a good man, but if he turns out to be a saint, it will be by an unconventional route. God doesn’t seem to mind unconventional routes. My arrival here was certainly by an unconventional route. And the person I want to reflect upon today also took unconventional routes all through her life.
Blame it on the Holy Spirit. For some reason He wants me to write about Josephine Baker, whose birthday is also on June 3. And you may well ask…who is Josephine Baker? Ernest Hemingway said she was “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw...or ever will.”
When I moved to New York City, I lived just north of Lincoln Center. A lot of theater people were my neighbors, and a lot of theater people worked in hotels. I briefly handled finances for a small African-American theater company that had connections with Duke Ellington’s family. A lot of these folks idolized Josephine Baker, who I had never heard of, and there was a lot of talk about her. She held a grand performance to celebrate 50 years in show business and died suddenly 5 days later.
Josephine was born here in Saint Louis in 1906. She was black and grew up poor and uneducated in the formal sense, but she could dance and sing. Her parents had a vaudeville song and dance act. By age 13 she was on her own, living on the streets. So she survived doing what she could do, dancing and singing on street corners. Eventually, she joined a stable vaudeville act which took her to New York during the Harlem Renaissance. She became a very successful chorus girl.
In 1925, in the roaring ‘20s, at age 19, her act went to Paris. In Paris, she quit the act and launched out on her own, becoming a bombshell superstar. Needless to say, she was not very saintly at this point in her life.
Paris brought success, connections, and self esteem. Many African Americans, such as James Baldwin, had the same experience in Paris, where their color was not a stigma and social handicap. Buoyed by her success in France, Josephine returned to New York in 1936. America was not ready for her. She received unflattering reviews. Knowing where she was not wanted and where she was, she returned to France in 1937, where she became a citizen.
Timing is everything, for trapeze artists and for risk takers in life (which is all of us). World War II brought an end to many promising careers, but not hers. She became a volunteer Red Cross nurse but continued to travel freely as an entertainer. The Germans and Italians were just as smitten by her charms as the French, and she was able to make their diplomats and high ranking officers give away a lot of information over leisurely dinners and lunches and over champagne at night. All this information Josephine passed on to the French resistance and the allies. Amazingly, the poor girl from the slums of Saint Louis became a hero of World War II, awarded the Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honor by her grateful adopted home, the Republic of France.
She also became active in the movement for Civil Rights here after being refused service by 36 hotels and clubs in New York City in 1951. She spoke at Fisk University on “France, North Africa and the Equality of the Races in France.” During her years working with the Civil Rights Movement, she began adopting children, building a family of 12 she referred to as “The Rainbow Tribe.” She wanted to prove that children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers.
In 1963, dressed in her bemedaled French military uniform, Josephine Baker stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was the only woman to speak that day. “You young people must do one thing…You must get an education. You must go to school, and you must learn to protect yourself. And you must learn to protect yourself with the pen, and not the gun…I am not a young woman now, friends. My life is behind me. There is not too much fire burning inside me. And before it goes out, I want you to use what is left to light that fire in you. So that you can carry on, and so that you can do those things that I have done. Then, when my fires have burned out, and I go where we all go someday, I can be happy…May God bless you. And may He continue to bless you long after I am gone.” Josephine had learned to live her life for others.
When Dr. King was killed, Mrs. King asked Josephine to take up his mantle of leadership, but she declined. In her later years, she became a Catholic, like most of her French countrymen. When she died, she was given a funeral with full military honors at the Church of the Madeleine in Paris, attended by over 20,000 people.
That’s what fire burning inside of us can do. It’s never too late to be a saint or a hero. And even dancing can be a route someone takes. Life will bring out the best in us if we let God have his way.